Property Rights

Slipped a Mickey?

One man's light pollution is another man's historic landmark

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If you happen to be a 5-year-old, having a giant illuminated Mickey Mouse dancing on your bedroom walls is probably the greatest thing that has ever happened to you. But for a grown-up, discovering that the billboard outside your bedroom window has been replaced by a digital LED billboard flashing a rotating cast of Mickeys and Paris Hiltons bright enough to shame the sun may be a little less pleasing.

These grumpy adults must have justice, and so the battle is joined in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake, where digital billboards have started cropping up in residential areas.

The city tried to ban new billboards in 2002, and the lawsuits got fairly tedious for everyone involved. So a deal was cut two years ago: Clear Channel and the other billboard companies dropped their legal challenge to the city's ban on billboards in exchange for permission to upgrade existing signs. And hidden inside the deal was an important little detail—these upgrades wouldn't require a zoning review.

Most residents of Los Angeles wouldn't find a billboard or two a shocking sight. After all, there are 11,000 in the area, making it the biggest billboard media market in the country. In virtually every case, a shiny new digital billboard is merely replacing an existing traditional billboard, which suggests that most of the neighborhoods in question aren't exactly quasi-bucolic Wisteria Lanes. People who already have billboards outside their windows probably shouldn't act so shocked or pronounce themselves utterly unprepared for the arrival of a different billboard outside their windows.

But a few L.A. residents have professed themselves surprised, and a NIMBY phone call or two later, a small army of politicians—including those who cheerfully collaborated on the compromise deal two years ago—suddenly have plans to end the scourge of billboards. No fewer than three were proposed on Wednesday. Strictly speaking, they won't really end the scourge of billboards, because after all, who doesn't like the touch of light and color that they bring to the Sunset Strip, right? But they will definitely end the scourge of perfectly legal billboards in fairly gentrified residential neighborhoods. Of course, at the same meeting where all this metaphorical chest thumping was occurring, discussions continued unabated on the topic of adding new billboard districts in Koreatown and near the 110 Freeway, not to mention wrapping the convention center in illuminated billboard space. Brave politicians strike a blow for justice.

City Council President Eric Garcetti, for instance, has a plan to impose a temporary moratorium on upgrades, and he has "asked Delgadillo's office and the City's Department of Building and Safety to review [California Environmental Quality Act ] CEQA laws and look for possible loopholes that would force all 850 additional billboards still to come, to go through environmental review."

Though it's not likely, one would hope that real environmentalists would rise up in fury against this kind of behavior. Garcetti is hoping that he can find a way out of the mess he and his fellow city officials created by advancing under the green flag of truce and striking a deathblow to the same billboard companies they sat at the negotiating table with just two years ago. One can imagine the environmental review now: "Wait! These illuminated billboards consume electricity?" they'll say in mock surprise. "They emit light? Well, we'll have to look into that." The folks at the Curbed LA blog put it more bluntly: "CEQA can kill anything."

The health of Mother Earth is clearly not the real issue here—language about light pollution and power consumption will just be a cover for aesthetic complaints. Totally legitimate aesthetic complaints, mind you. Those billboards are pretty ugly. But in most cases there aren't even rapacious lawbreaking corporations to blame: The companies were merely doing what the city said they were allowed to do, in the manner that the city said they were allowed to do it. This will not stop people from blaming the corporations, of course.

Consider the manifesto posted at the base of one of the billboards in Silver Lake: "It is visible from many of our living rooms. Its 50,000 watts of power flash a cavalcade of tacky advertisements at one per five seconds…. We have worked hard…making Silver Lake a beautiful and desirable place to live, only to see all that work substantially devalued by a mega-corporation that cares nothing about our community." Tacky? Mega-corporations? Sigh.

City officials are the ones at fault here. They made a bad deal and after two years of confusing exemptions, moratoria, and other power games, they've been called out. Consistent, logical laws about property use make property more valuable. The city's games have made the property of Silver Lake homeowners and billboard companies less valuable. Good work guys.

I wouldn't be thrilled either to discover that I had a new neon bed buddy—I'm a snob too, Silver Lakers. I feel your pain. But my most recent city of residence, Boston, makes fairly regular sport of freaking out about its own illuminated billboard, the giant Citgo sign near Fenway (which caught fire this week, coincidentally). Someone always wants to take it down or turn it off—power shortages, feisty Venezuelan dictators, light pollution—you name it, someone has used it as a reason to kill the Citgo sign. But it's also considered a historic landmark in the city. Which just goes to show that one man's eyesore can be another man's beacon of home.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor of reason.